Nation-Building: A Comparison, Part I

During the past year, I have deliberately chosen to intersperse my reading of books on the founding of the American republic and the founding of the “New Russia.” I have focused my reading on the first 10-20 years in each nation’s “experiment with democracy” and have found some remarkable similarities, as well as obvious differences. It makes for fascinating reading.

I was challenged to think along these lines by David Remnick’s observation, in his book Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, that “ever since the Soviet Union collapsed and the threat of nuclear confrontation subsided, American interest in Russia has eased. . . This is a serious mistake, for the process of creating a new country – a country that will undoubtedly reassert itself in every sense in the twenty-first century – is at least as interesting, as essential, as the process of erosion and collapse. It is not, however, an easy subject to grasp.”

Having had the privilege of working in Russia since 1990 and personally witnessing many of the historic events on a first-hand basis, I am struck by some common issues that have faced both of our nations – complex, critical issues with which both nations have wrestled. Most Americans have forgotten about these struggles, largely because we do not know our own history.

Part I: The Founding Presidents

President Boris Yeltsin
The seminal role of the founding president in each of our two countries is an obvious beginning point in any comparative analysis. The larger-than-life portrait of Boris Yeltsin, mounted on the tank in front of the White House during the failed coup of August 1991, is an image difficult to forget. More than any other single event in President Yeltsin’s political life, his brave and courageous opposition to the coup made him the symbol of the new democracy emerging in Russia and galvanized the support base that would carry him for years to come.

The emergence of Boris Yeltsin as the leader of Democratic Russia was a surprising one. His career as a Communist Party bureaucrat was undistinguished, but when he came to Moscow and sensed the growing dissension in Russia’s capital city with the aging and reactionary Communist Party leadership, he shifted to a populist mode and became the “people’s candidate,” railing against the privileges of the ruling elites. He was seen riding the Metro, visiting with the “common people,” and talking about the needs of the average worker.

In May 1991, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR passed a law creating a presidency for Russia and set the election date for June 12. Boris Yeltsin, who was then serving as Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, announced his candidacy and ran against five other political figures. With no real campaign platform other than to continue the policies he had begun as Chairman, he won handily, securing 57% of the vote; his closest rival received less than 17%. It was from this position that Yeltsin led the resistance to the August 1991 coup, an effort on the part of hard-line Communists to revive the faltering Soviet Union. When Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post as president of the Soviet Union and the Russian parliament voted to withdraw from the Soviet Union, Russia was embarked on its new experiment with democracy.

When he was elected president for his second term, and then again when his eight-year rule neared completion, there were efforts by Yeltsin’s supporters to convince him not to step down – to become “ruler for life.” Critically important decisions were made then that have shaped Russia’s future. It was not preordained that President Yeltsin would voluntarily relinquish power. Leaders of other republics of the former Soviet Union have not done so. But he did – and his “farewell speech,” with the apologies for his failures, is not something often witnessed in Russian history.

President George Washington
Following the War of Independence, the unquestioned “father figure” of the new American democracy was George Washington. When he completed his eight-and-one-half years as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington held more power than any person in America; yet, he willingly surrendered it when he resigned his commission in December 1783. Six years later, when the Constitution was drafted and approved and a process for electing executive leadership established, Washington was unanimously elected as America’s first president by the College of Electors. This unanimous decision was repeated again four years later – and has never happened since!

It was not inevitable that George Washington would voluntarily step down from his unique role as America’s founding president. He could have remained in power – certainly there were plenty of critically important elites who would have defended this decision. Had George Washington wanted a third term, there is no question he would have been reelected once more.

A Critical Decision: Giving Up Power Voluntarily

What these two founding presidents shared in the early years of each nation’s “experiment with democracy” was massive popular support, with some pockets of resistance. Both presidents faced enormous pressure to extend their presidential terms, even beyond the legal limits established by their country’s constitution. They could have chosen to do so – and the history of these two countries would have been very different.

What historian Richard Brookhiser wrote about President Washington could also be applied to President Yeltsin: “Washington’s last service to his country was to stop serving. . . . Washington was worthy of honor because the last thing he had done with power was to resign it.”